Women’s singles in badminton is crammed with talent, we watch a game blessed with a golden generation of athletes from around the world. But there is one player recently who is always catching the eye and I think she may be on the brink of dominating the game for a while to come: Chen Yu Fei.
Since her success at the 2018 Fuzhou Chinese Open, Chen has been on an upward trajectory. I watched her play in the final at the All England Open this year and went to the game fully expecting Tai Tzu Ying to play at her imperious best and be crowned queen of the court. Things turned out a lot differently to that…
Shivani Naik from the Indian Express says that Chen neutralised Tai in that match and I think that analysis is spot on. We all watch Tai and expect her to conquer opponents through a mix of fabulous deception and Zen-like calm. Chen refused to stand admiringly on the other side of the net and rejected the opportunity to be beaten. Tai was made to run around and there were too many times when she was scrambling for the shuttle. She just could not dominate in her usual way.
Chen looks very fit – she is simultaneously springy and unyielding – and there is a grit to her make up. She is obstinate, she hustles, she doesn’t give up, she declines defeat. Every shot her opponent tries is retrieved. Not just that, she defends relentlessly and then switches to attack, pushing back on her rival. She doesn’t make many mistakes, and although it sounds obvious, it is a huge advantage in any match. This must be exhausting to play against.
I think she is great at the net. Although not the tallest at 171cm she has a great reach and lunges well to get to the shuttle. Unlike P V Sindhu she doesn’t have particularly steep smashes in her armour, nor does she have a long-legged stride to cover the court. What she does have is fast reactions and confidence in her ability so she often seems to bulldoze to victory.
So, what does the future hold for the kid who took up badminton because she was naughty? Well, Chen has a formidable team behind her and arguably the best coaching resources in the world are in China; after she won at the All England this year she was quick to acknowledge the people whose know-how helped her. She has mentioned before that her ambition is to “see the Chinese flag rising” so I’m certain that she is eyeing Olympic gold at Tokyo 2020 as well as the top titles on the BWF tour. There’s lots of competition in the women’s game these days so it won’t be easy but who is going to beat her?
Is Tai Tzu Ying the best ever women’s singles player?
My top takeaway from watching her at the All England Open Championships this year is that it would be impossible to name anyone else who plays in such an exciting way. She became World Number 1 back in 2016 after a dominant year and has been at the top ever since; winning back to back singles titles at the All England in 2017 and 2018.
A few years back when I first started watching her, I was confused by her unhurried style. She keeps smiling and keeps winning. No one is number 1 in the world by chance so I started to try and understand why she is so successful.
What sets her apart is her mind-blowing deception. She is a true artist: racket in hand, the quality of her trickery is amazing. Check out the compilation video posted by Shuttle Flash on YouTube. The variation in her game – the range of shots and angles – is staggering. She caresses the shuttle with deadly accuracy and finishes off rallies in jaw dropping style.
Tai skims over the court and covers the corners with ease – moving in her own dance – all smooth agility and balance. She is so relaxed and at one with her game that her opponents have to put their foot on the gas to compete. Like many top sport stars time seems to expand to contain her talent.
She is a very brave player who is relentless in her pursuit of her opponent. This method of constantly daring her rival to match her sublime flair is exciting to watch but must be psychologically exhausting to play against…And, the best ever? Well, maybe not yet, she has no Olympic Gold, but the prospect of the women’s singles competition at Tokyo 2020 is just fascinating. Who do you think will win it? Chen Yufei? Or maybe Akane Yamaguchi? Let me know via comments.
There is stacks of talent in the women’s game at the moment but Tai Tzu Ying is extraordinary in her genius and I never get bored of her endless brilliance.
The Yonex All England is an unbelievable show: its where the world’s top players want to make history and where we all want to watch it happen. The arena is dark except for spotlights when the players emerge, the crowd is noisy and the intensity is often unbearable.
So, to my highlights of 2019
The WD semi-final between Hirota/Fukushima and Chen/Jia was an epic physical battle. Right from the start both pairs tried to seize a place in the final. The Chinese duo were ferocious with their attacking smashes; Hirota and Fukushima kept getting the shuttle back but…two, three, four smashes in a row, it was just too much for them to live with. This happened point after point. I didn’t expect that Chen and Jia had the strength to play like this through the entire match. I was wrong. They dominated and they won.
On to the final where they faced Matsumoto and Nagahara, who kept hitting the shuttle up. Clever tactics to exploit tiredness or injury after the exertions of the day before? Nope. After three brutal games Chen and Jia were champions, they deserved it.
I loved watching Viktor Axelsen win his semi-final against Shi as did all the boisterous Danes watching from the seats around me. We were caught up in the charged atmosphere as the match ebbed and flowed. Yes, he did smash at 418kph; I can’t believe I saw it. Shi kept pushing and pushing to try and get back into the game but in the end was beaten.
It’s over for another year. A great spectacle where the worldwide badminton community comes together to support the elite. Congratulations to the winners, and congratulations to those people working behind the scenes to make it such a success. It is definitely not village hall badminton.
What’s so good about the Yonex All England Championships?
It’s the chance to be inside a buzzing arena and witness sporting history being made. Will the exciting Japanese duo of Fukushima and Hirota justify their seeding at number 1? Or could another women’s doubles pair rise to challenge them?
For me, nothing compares to live matches. Firstly it’s a shared emotional experience. In Birmingham there will be about 15000 people brought together and we all want to see success and feel as though we played our part in it. I think that watching on TV simply doesn’t come close – it’s like comparing eating chocolates to just looking at the box. Getting caught up in the drama of the moment is a welcome escape from subjects like Brexit, terrible weather and single-use plastics.
This is the world’s best badminton competition and anyone who has ever picked up a racket will be stunned by the quality of the action. Excellence is not an accident though, no-one succeeds in this tournament just by turning up. Failure, sweat and hard, hard work will all contribute to eventual triumph.
I find there is a bittersweet joy in following sport; especially if emotions are tied to a particular performer or country. Tournaments can be a peculiar kind of torture when we stagger from one day to the next, not quite sure how things will end but not able to walk away. Dare we expect the unexpected?